Star KOI-500 Is The Tiniest Planetory System Yet; How Does It Compare To Our Solar System? [IMAGES]

By Danny Choy on October 16, 2012 11:37 AM EDT

Researchers at NASA's Kepler space observatory have announced the discovery of the KOI-500 planetary system-- the tiniest known alien solar system yet.

Discovered via an orbiting telescope that has identified more than 2,300 potential alien worlds since its first day in operation in March 2009, researchers boast a capacity to observe more than 160,000 stars simultaneously. By looking for small dips in stars' brightness to indicating orbiting worlds passing in front of them, scientists pinpoint potential planetary systems. KOI-500 is located in the Lyra constellation, 1,100 light-years away from our solar system.

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According to scientists, the new planetary system boasts five orbiting planets all circling star KOI-500 from a distance 12 times closer than the Earth's distance to our sun. An extremely compact formation, star KOI-500 and its planets are a little more compact as well. KOI-500 possesses just about the same mass as the sun but also a diameter that's only three-quarters as long. Planets around KOI-500 range from 1.3 to 2.6 times the size of Earth, still significantly tinier than our titans Saturn, Jupiter, and Uranus.

University of Florida at Gainesville planetary scientist and study lead author Darin Ragozzine said, "All five planets zip around their star within a region 150 times smaller in area than the Earth's orbit, despite containing more material than several Earths. At this rate, you could easily pack in 10 more planets, and they would still all fit comfortably inside Earth's orbit."

Due to the compact orbital trajectories, planets complete one "year" around KOI-500 in a span of just 1.0, 3.1, 4.6, 7.1, and 9.5 days long. What's more, the tight formation also causes a phenomenon where planets mutually react to the push and pull of each other's gravity. Despite the close passes, researchers say that their orbits seem stable and present no danger of colliding into one another.

The final party piece of the new KOI-500 planetary system is its unique synchronized orbit, dubbed the four-body resonance. Ragozzine explained, "Four planets come back to a similar orbital configuration for every 191 days."

After further studying the planets, scientists determined that the conditions are too hot for the planets to have formed there. Instead, the planets were likely more spread out but eventually spun inward due to gravitational interactions. Darin Ragozzine added, "We think that the migration process that put them into their current orbits also helped synchronize them into a four-body resonance."

As peculiar as the KOI-500 planetary system sounds, scientists have been able to discover other exoplanets with very similar traits. Planets have been discovered to orbit much closer to their stars than any planet in our solar system circles our sun. In fact, scientists have witnessed "hot-Jupiters," massive planets that orbit around its star at distances comparable to Mercury.

On a final note, Ragozzine reflected, "As the most compact system of a new compact population of planets, KOI-500 will become a touchstone for future theories that will attempt to describe how compact planetary systems form. Learning about these systems will inspire a new generation of theories to explain why our solar system turned out so differently."

Star KOI-500 infographic, space.com
Star KOI-500 infographic, space.com

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